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Village making case for municipal auditor

If ever there was a case study on the need for a municipal auditor general, it’s being written in the Village of Boyle.

If ever there was a case study on the need for a municipal auditor general, it’s being written in the Village of Boyle.

Last year through a private member’s bill, the province flirted with the idea of a creating a position that would look into how municipalities spend money beyond standard audits of annual financial statements, including conducting performance audits of municipalities and responding to citizens’ concerns about local operations.

The private member’s bill died at the committee level last fall, but not before municipal leaders denounced the idea as heavy handed and smacking of condescension. That’s true for the most part since it would have given provincial overseers greater sway in spending, perhaps at the expense of local priorities. Larger cities like Edmonton and Calgary already have full-time auditors, while even smaller cities like St. Albert are very open and accountable about how money is spent in the public interest.

Every rule has its exception. A recent provincial study into the inner workings of the Village of Boyle, located about an hour north, has raised serious questions about accountability with apparent self-interest trumping the public good.

The report, prepared by provincially hired consultant Russell Farmer, identified several instances where public money was spent inappropriately, including two sets of Calloway golf clubs that were purchased and charged to the village water budget by chief administrative officer Ken Gwozdz (who kept a set for himself and gave the other to a senior manager and personal friend). The report also notes Gwozdz used one of the village’s Bobcats on his property, along with municipal water to fill his personal cistern.

The review was launched in response to a public petition sent to Municipal Affairs shortly after Boyle’s fire chief was fired in 2008.

Farmer outlined 53 recommendations to improve operations, including firing Gwozdz, an action council opted against after securing a legal opinion.

During interviews with the Athabasca Advocate, Boyle Mayor Bob Clark claimed there wasn’t “enough meat” in the report to warrant a firing and justified some of the other findings as the village cutting corners as is commonplace in Alberta municipalities. In a letter to residents, council conceded errors in judgment were made, but many were made on tight timelines to apply for things like grants that would help taxpayers.

“While we are grateful to the consultant for his assistance in highlighting these [errors] in his report, it is the opinion of council that this report does not present a balanced and unbiased view of the governance of this community,” the letter wrote.

Comments made in council chambers were less flattering. When debating whether to post Farmer’s recommendations on the village’s website, Clark suggested the report belonged “under garbage,” while another councillor suggested it be buried somewhere online. Council eventually agreed to post the report for 30 days — along with a letter of rebuttal.

It’s a particularly cavalier response considering 12 of the 53 recommendations were made into provincial directives, meaning the village is required to act. It’s also disrespectful to Farmer, who due to his findings was appointed official administrator of the village by Municipal Affairs.

Council fired back at its critics, like the Advocate, for having the audacity to question the decision to retain Gwozdz. (Full disclosure: the Advocate and the Gazette are both owned by the same parent company, Great West Newspapers LP). In a letter, Clark criticized the newspaper’s editorial and its publisher who should “stay out of Boyle council’s affairs.” Council then pulled all its advertising from the paper.

Not only does the letter show complete ignorance about the role of newspapers in protecting the public interest, it’s another example of Boyle council brushing off the seriousness of the report. If cutting corners is as commonplace in Alberta’s villages, towns and cities as Clark claims, then perhaps it’s time to revisit the municipal auditor idea.

Bryan Alary is an editor at the Gazette.